Tag Archives: sexual

Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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“Henry IV, Part 1” by William Shakespeare: The Archetypal Figure of Falstaff

Although this play is a history, it is way funnier than some of Shakespeare’s comedies (just read Measure for Measure). In fact, the “historical” events seem to be more of a background for the antics of Sir John Falstaff.  A more apt title would be The Merrie Adventures of Sir John Falstaff. There were times I found myself ginning or chuckling out loud as I read. For this reason, I figured I would focus my post on Falstaff, and particularly how he embodies an archetype.

Falstaff is a completely unrepentant indulger in worldly pleasures. He has no qualms with being overweight, a cheat, a glutton, a whoremonger, basically, embracing everything society warns us against. And in spite of his wallowing in earthly delights, he does not suffer, but plods on happily regardless of the chaos swirling around him. His main concern is finding his next cup of sack.

With this in mind, we can look at Falstaff as the archetype of the fallen soul, who passes on all things heavenly to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

(Act II, scene iv)

This quote made me think about Falstaff’s name, and I figured it might be broken down, such as “False Staff.” If the Good Shepherd uses his staff to lead humans along the Heavenly path, then the great “misleader” would use a false staff to lead others down the “wrong” path. I would also venture to assert that there is a sexual innuendo here too, that the staff that leads men astray is in fact the staff within their trousers.

But is the pursuit of physical pleasure truly a sin? Falstaff presents a defense of his actions.

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

(Act II, scene iv)

This for me is the key to understanding Falstaff. Should someone be banished for being human, for indulging in the desires that are natural to all of us? To banish one person for succumbing to the flesh would mean that all humans must be banished. And isn’t that what essentially happened, according to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Dost thou hear, Hal? thou knowest in the state of
innocency Adam fell; and what should poor Jack
Falstaff do in the days of villany? Thou seest I
have more flesh than another man, and therefore more
frailty.

(Act III, scene iii)

There is a bit of Falstaff in all of us. Whether we repress those desires, or whether we choose to indulge ourselves, we cannot deny that they are a part of us, that this is an integral part of the human condition. Falstaff lets us know that we should not flagellate ourselves because we eat too much, or drink too much, or fornicate too much. What Falstaff teaches us that that we should accept ourselves, with our faults, because we all have faults. And once we accept those faults and can love ourselves anyway, then we can progress as individuals.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be reading Part 2 soon.

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“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” by William Butler Yeats

This is a poem about the tension between the worldly and the spiritual and how that tension manifests during the various stages of a person’s life. Since it is a fairly long poem, I decided to include the text at the end of the post for those who need to reference it.

The poem is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is associated with a stage of human life. The stanzas are also associated with specific places within County Sligo, Ireland. I suspect that Yeats intended some connection between the places and the stages of a person’s life, but the references are not clear to me since I am not familiar with those sites. Anyway, the four stages represented in the poem are youth, middle age, old age, and death.

In the first stanza, Yeats describes the youth whose earthly attachment is to physical love, or sexual attraction. When he states that “His heart hung all upon a silken dress,” he is asserting that the young man’s desires are focused solely upon a woman. When the fish sing to him, it symbolizes the divine spirit letting him know that there is a deeper love that exists within the spiritual realm. The young man is shaken “out of his new ease,” but we are left with the sense that even though he is aware of this deeper spiritual love, he cannot relinquish his desire for earthly love.

The singing fish appear to have a dual symbolism. On one hand, they represent the teachings of Christ, but they are also an ancient Celtic symbol for wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy.

As an ancient Celtic symbol, the symbolic meaning of fish (salmon, specifically) dealt with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration and prophecy. Ancient Celts believed the salmon derived its wisdom from consuming the sacred hazel nuts from the well of knowledge (Segais). Further, they believed to eat the salmon would mean gaining the wisdom of the well too.

(Source: http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-meanings-of-fish.html)

In the second stanza, we are presented with a man in his middle age, whose focus is work and the accumulation of money. At this phase, a lugworm sings to the man, reminding him of the greater wealth within the spiritual realm. The lugworm is an interesting symbol. It burrows in the sand along the beach and is often used for bait in fishing. So in essence, it symbolizes something used to capture the knowledge and inspiration represented by the fish. Also, since they burrow at the shoreline, they symbolize the search for deeper meaning at the threshold between the worldly (the shore) and the spiritual (the sea).

In the third stanza, we see a man in his old age whose current worldly attachment is his obsession over the past, particularly the wrongs that others have perpetrated against him. The knot-grass sings to him, encouraging the man to forgive and let go of his anger and resentment. The man knows that he should do this to prepare himself for the inevitable crossing to the next realm, as evident in the phrase “unnecessary cruel voice.” But one still gets the sense that the old man remains unable to completely forgive and embrace the spiritual.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, Yeats presents us with the man after death, “Now that the earth had taken man and all.” I see an urgent message in this final stanza: if you fail to live a spiritual life while on earth, then you will not enjoy spiritual bliss in the next life. “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” Essentially, if we attach ourselves to worldly obsessions, then we carry those with us to the next realm. It is much more desirable to cross that threshold without the baggage of earthly attachments, and instead cross over with a heart and spirit that is light and ready for union with the divine.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and here is the full text for those who need.

He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where — unnecessary cruel voice —
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

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“Sonnet 26: Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

When I first read this poem, knowing it is one of the “fair youth” sonnets, I assumed that the lord to whom it is composed was the fair youth. I still adhere to that interpretation, but it is worth pointing out other interpretations which I cannot claim credit for.

According to what I read online, some scholars believe the lord referenced in the beginning of the poem is Cupid. I can see that, Cupid being the god of love and is often depicted naked. My only hesitation in accepting this is the lack of arrows as images and metaphors in this poem. I feel that if Cupid was the lord, then there would have been more evidence in the verse. Shakespeare was certainly a skilled-enough poet that he could have woven that imagery in. Also, arrows are phallic symbols, so it would have added to the sexuality of the poem, which leads me to the next item I want to discuss.

In the synopsis that I read online, the scholar mentioned that there was a sexual pun at the end. I thought, really? Did I miss something? And it seems I did. As I went back and read more closely, I caught it in the final couplet.

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

“Show my head” could definitely be interpreted as showing his penis, which Shakespeare says he will abstain from doing until he boasts his love. I have to say, I appreciate the bawdy pun. It proves that Shakespeare was not writing for high-brow intellectuals, but that he was writing for the common people of his time, who would have certainly appreciated the sexual pun.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a terrific day.

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“Desire” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes the meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart.

This is a very short yet very moving poem. Coleridge is essentially comparing and contrasting Love and Desire. For Coleridge, Love comes from the soul. It is a spiritual connection with another human being that transcends this earthly plane. And since Love, like all things spiritual, is impossible to express through normal means, it must be expressed through symbols, and Desire is the symbol by which a person can express Love. Desire is the physical expression of spiritual Love.

There is really not much else I have to share about this poem. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Cheers!

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“Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Since there are various translations of this poem, I am including the one by Roy Campbell, which is the version in my book.

Above the valleys and the lakes: beyond
The woods, seas, clouds and mountain-ranges: far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares or boredom hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

This is a great poem and has some amazing symbolism woven in. It basically attempts to describe the ecstatic feeling associated with shifting consciousness and then drawing artistic inspiration from that experience.

In the first stanza, the spirit (consciousness) of the poet rises above the earthly confines and floats upward into the cosmos. This represents the psyche transcending its worldly bonds and being freed to explore the vast mystery of the deep subconscious.

In the second stanza, Baudelaire associates the transcendent experience with sexual ecstasy. The spirit moves like sperm toward an egg, the union being the moment of creation. Essentially, when the spirit becomes one with the ineffable form, the result is the spark of creation, just as the sperm reaching the egg is the spark of new life.

The third stanza marks the transition from spark to flame, symbolic of the illumination that one experiences during the state of heightened awareness. It is akin to feeling intoxicated, which is why Baudelaire uses fire and liqueur as metaphors.

In the fourth stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges ennui as his motivation for striving to transcend. It is his boredom and sickness that forces him to seek beyond himself and the mundane. It is his desire to escape what he sees around him that inspires him to elevate his consciousness and explore the realms beyond our everyday experience.

The last stanza is my favorite. As the poet basks in the elevated state, he understands things that are outside the comprehension of ordinary consciousness. It is effortless and it fills him with bliss. “The speech of flowers and other voiceless things” refer to symbols, archetypes, and forms, those things that exist within our subconscious. These symbols have their own language and only one who is elevated above the mundane can comprehend them. The fact that these are described as voiceless implies that Baudelaire will never be able to express them adequately, even through his most inspired verse. At best, he can offer a glimpse of the beauty that exists just past the veil of our world.

The more I think about this poem, the more inspired I feel. I hope you feel the same way. Have a blessed and inspired day!

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